GUSTAVO POYET admits Sunderland have suffered a “reality check” since their cup exploits came to an end, but has identified Connor Wickham as the “spark” that could reignite the club's faltering season.
Wickham will make his first Premier League start since August tonight as Sunderland travel to Anfield to take on a Liverpool side who have scored at least three goals in six of their last seven outings.
In contrast, the Black Cats have failed to score in all of three of their matches since the Capital One Cup final, and Poyet has been forced to concede that his players have suffered a hangover in the wake of their appearance at Wembley.
Saturday's lacklustre defeat at Norwich City convinced the Uruguayan that major changes were needed, and Monday's decision to recall Wickham from a loan spell at Leeds United was an attempt to jolt Sunderland out of their current malaise.
“When we were playing in the cups, we were living a dream because it was a great opportunity,” said Poyet. “Then everything was gone, and now you look and the only thing you see is the table. It is back to reality.
“So we have to try different things to change that. I cannot keep closing my mind, and wonder at the end of the season why I didn't try different solutions.
“We need a big impact now, something to happen to change the mood. Maybe a big win will provide that spark, or maybe it will have to be something else.
“If you were in a lower division, you would probably look to bring a player on loan. Another club might sack their manager and bring in another one, although I obviously hope that doesn't happen here!
“It is that type of thing we need. Between the Liverpool game and Monday against West Ham, I need to find that season-changing moment. It could be Connor Wickham because there is a big possibility he will start (tonight).”
Given that his only Premier League goal came in October 2011, Wickham would appear to be an unlikely choice of saviour.
The 20-year-old has witnessed a succession of false dawns since arriving in a much-trumpeted £8.1m transfer under Steve Bruce, and Poyet looked like being the latest manager to have written him off when he sent him to both Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds.
The Sunderland boss insists those loan moves were never a reflection of Wickham's perceived failings, and having seemingly given up on Jozy Altidore in the absence of the injured Steven Fletcher, Wickham will be given a chance to impress tonight. Whatever happens, he is likely to remain in the team on Monday, with Fabio Borini returning on the left of midfield.
“I'm not going to judge him in this game if he plays,” said Poyet. “I'm not mad enough to say, 'You played against Liverpool and didn't score, so I'm not going to play you any more'. It's about searching for a solution.
“He's going to get a great chance now. I would like Connor to look at this as though we have just signed him for the first time.
“He is a new player, nobody knows him, and he is a young English striker with an incredible power in himself. He's coming to a club to help us to get away from relegation. If he has that impact, that will be fantastic. That will be the 'bang' we need.”
A more likely scenario this evening if that the fireworks come from Liverpool's strikers, particularly Poyet's close friend, Luis Suarez.
Suarez has scored more Premier League goals than the entire Sunderland team this season, and with Daniel Sturridge proving equally productive, Liverpool's strike pairing need just nine more goals before the end of the campaign to break the Premier League record that is currently held by Andy Cole and Peter Beardsley from their time at Newcastle United.
Suarez in particular has been breathtaking – Saturday's hat-trick against Cardiff was his third of the season – but the 27-year-old might have been playing elsewhere had Poyet not counselled against him leaving Anfield in the summer.
Back then, Suarez looked to have his heart set on a move to Arsenal, but Poyet urged him to repay Liverpool's faith in the wake of a series of disciplinary problems, and the Sunderland boss has been delighted to see how things have turned out.
“There were so many rumours that he was leaving, and I tried to say that, for me, he should stay because of the way that Liverpool as a club and the supporters backed him after all those incidents,” said Poyet, who first saw a 17-year-old Suarez playing for Nacional in a friendly against Penarol, and did not consider the striker to be anything too special.
“He's a great lad. He's calm, although you might not believe me. He's a family man, and is always talking about his family. But he wants to win football games. It's all about football and how to win.
“There are players that you would like to have, and I think everybody would like to have him in their team. If he was at Arsenal, Arsenal would be top now. If he was at Man United, they would be the same.”